film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Image result for gone with the wind

This is a film whose reputation definitely preceded it, and that mere fact gave me pause.  It’s one of the most famous-for-being-famous films in the canon; for a reviewer, it probably carries the same weight that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be….” soliloquy carries for an actor.  Right before I began, I wondered aloud on Facebook: “why does it feel like I’m about to undergo hand-to-hand combat?”

But I had other misgivings too, particularly about the nature of that reputation.  It’s long as hell, first of all; a whopping four hours.  The original print built in an overture, an intermission, and exit music, all faithfully included on the pair of DVDs I received.  Alex heard me briefly consider whether I should split the film over two nights, or watch the whole thing in one go; he simply suggested “….I think that’s between you and your God,” and then fled to the safety of his room.

Image result for gone with the wind

And even if the film were only half its length, there’s the subject matter; a rose-hued, sepia-toned depiction of the old Confederate South and the indignities it suffered during Reconstruction, told via the impact of those events on the life of a spoiled Southern Belle.  Less than 24 hours previously I’d been listening to a longform radio news piece on the origins of the Ku Klux Klan and how the Daughters of the Confederacy promoted the various Confederate Monuments across the country, at general taxpayer expense.  So what with that, my reticence about the length, and the long shadow it cast, I girded my loins a bit before watching (and I watched the whole thing in one go).

And that’s why I’m so surprised that I found parts of the film engaging; even more surprising, it was the Civil War And Reconstruction parts I got into most.

Image result for gone with the wind

It is probably unnecessary for me to give a brief plot overview, but: Vivien Leigh is Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of plantation owner Frank O’Hara.  At the start the film, she is a pretty, spoiled flirt, stringing along every guy in town while secretly pining for her neighbor Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). But during a grand ball at the very start of the film, Ashley announces he is now engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Haviland); and a mere moments later, news reaches the revelers that the Confederacy has just seceded and is now at war with the North, causing all the men present to instantly rush to their horses and head off to enlist.  Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother in an effort to stay close to Ashley and is almost instantly widowed when her husband dies of pneumonia in an army camp. Over the course of the next several years, Scarlett goes through one war, two more husbands, a couple of Yankee soldier attacks, and the loss of several family members, accompanied by Melanie, her two sisters, her longtime nurse Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), and a ditsy servant named Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), with a rogueish fellow named Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) occasionally offering his advice and assistance – and frequently his love.

Image result for gone with the wind

Now, as fine as Leigh and Gable’s performances were, I did not like their characters in the slightest.  Rhett is intended to be seductive, but today he would come across as really creepy – basically forcing himself on Scarlett several times, with increasing bluntness, until she relents.   And as for Scarlett – no matter what hardships the film throws at her, she never really grows out of her selfish and manipulative ways.  Again and again she is compared to the kind and sweet Melanie and found wanting; but the film follows her story and treats her as a noble, scrappy survivor rather than as a spoiled brat who desperately needs to get over herself.

The film even seems to suggest that it’s going to go that way in the middle. Some of the film’s best-known sequences deal with the wartime chaos and its aftermath – Scarlett and Rhett desperately trying to steer a carriage through flames as Atlanta burns around them, Scarlett heading to the hospital in search of a doctor and being confronted with a street that is all but carpeted with wounded soldiers, Scarlett and her sisters trying to pick cotton in the fields in an attempt to save their home after all their other slaves have either disappeared or been killed.  Ironically, I liked the Scarlett you see here – she’s still a little mean, but she’s practical, tough, and no-nonsense, taking over the management of her house and the care of her father and even singlehandedly fending off a Yankee intruder.  For a brief while it seems like the hardship of the war has even taught her something but then a desperate need for cash sends her back to her old coquettish ways, driving her to make a new dress out of some drapes in an effort to charm her way into a marriage of convenience, and she lost me again.

Image result for gone with the wind

I compared notes with a few people before and after watching.  Alex said he saw it in film school, and when I asked what he’d thought, he hesitated, then said “well….it looked pretty.”  I agree – it is beautifully shot, with some eye-popping sequences; the Confederate wounded in the streets for one, and a contrast between the earlier genteel fantasy world at Ashley’s plantation “Twelve Oaks” at the start of the film contrasting with a sequence showing the burned-out mansion later.  There’s a scene where Scarlett is silently staring up at the ash-blackened steps in Twelve Oaks, and I couldn’t help but think – as Scarlett was no doubt thinking – that the last time we saw those steps, Scarlett was tripping down them in a glamorous gown, the day the war started.  The pre-war world is vividly lush and green and verdant, while the post-war world is all dry yellows and browns and ash.  And regardless of your current political assignations, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the post-war South, even as you’re aware you’re being manipulated into it.

My problem is that the film then moves on from the immediate post-war South to get bogged down with some interpersonal drama with Scarlett and Rhett and Ashley and Melanie, dealing with problems of their own making prompted by Scarlett being her old selfish self, and I quickly lost what interest I’d had in the post-war world they’d been building.   Scarlett growing up in a hurry and barking out orders was getting interesting – Scarlett turning back into a simpering belle bored me again, no matter how hard the film was trying to tell me that what I was watching was a Tragic Doomed Romance instead of some Rich People having Rich People Drama.  Another person I know online summed up the film as “ten minutes of Civil War and five minutes of hatesex” amid “four hours of blah”, and I could definitely have done without the hatesex bits.

But still – as God is my witness, I never have to watch this film again.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Stagecoach (1939)

Image result for stagecoach movie

I discussed the Crash Course with someone where I work the other day – he’s a movie buff, so he was very excited about it – but then he asked me what my next film was coming up.  I said that it was Stagecoach.   “….Hang in there,” he said, grimly.  And even though I hadn’t yet seen it, I knew enough about it by reputation that I just nodded back, resigned. Happily, though – while it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t that bad.

All the tropes you’d recognize from either Westerns or “people thrown together in some kind of transit that runs into trouble” pictures probably came from this.  The bulk of the story is a stagecoach journey from Arizona to New Mexico, conveying seven strangers from one town to another for various reasons – “soiled dove” Dallas (Claire Trevor) and alcoholic Doc (Thomas Mitchell) are being thrown out of town for being public nuisances, Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is a pregnant soldier’s wife hoping to meet up with him at his new post, Mr. Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is the bank manager who’s been embezzling funds and has decided to skip town, Mr. Hatfield (John Carradine) is a drifting gambler who thinks he recognizes Mrs. Mallory, and Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a traveling whiskey salesman.  As they set out, the coach driver learns that there is a troupe of Apaches prowling the coaches’ route and raiding travelers, so when he sees outlaw Ringo (John Wayne) en route and heading his way, he picks him up too – Ringo can help fend off Apaches, and once they get to New Mexico, he can turn him in for the reward money.

Image result for stagecoach movie

The trip takes a little longer than anticipated, and the promised cavalry escort doesn’t arrive.  And the stagecoach is awfully close quarters for everyone, especially after Doc gets his hands on Mr. Peacock’s whiskey sample case.  And the big hulking Ringo has to sit on the floor at everyone’s feet which takes up room, and Mr. Gatewood will simply not shut up about how uncomfortable he is, and Mrs. Mallory is feeling a little urpy, and…yeah, you’ve been on that bus or that plane at some point in your life, and it made you grumpy about everyone else with you.  Ringo notices that the rest of the passengers seem to have a different sort of grudge against Dallas, though, and comes to her defense when the others try shutting her out.  And then when Mrs. Mallory’s water breaks at one of the waystations, Dallas steps in as midwife and assistant to Doc and earns everyone else’s respect as well.  But the passengers still have about one more days’ travel before New Mexico. Alone. And the Apache are near…

Image result for stagecoach movie

So, I admit that the grudge I had against this film was because I thought that it would be All John Wayne All The Time.  It is the film that made John Wayne John Wayne, pretty much, but his character is not emphasized as much as I thought it was going to be; he’s got a big part, but is still very much part of an ensemble.  Unfortunately, even though this is an ensemble piece, there are some characters whose individual stories aren’t all that well fleshed out; we know Ringo’s deal (broke out of prison to find the man who shot his pa), and Mrs. Mallory’s story is obvious (wants to be with her husband), but some characters’ stories are a little vague (I still don’t really get Mr. Hatfield was doing there, or understand his whole backstory with Mrs. Mallory).  And in Dallas’ case, the vagueness of the backstory was deliberate – it is never stated outright that she is a prostitute, all we see is that all the other characters avoid talking to her or sitting next to her.  I mean, I eventually got it, but only after several minutes of being unsure.

I also thought that the film could have ended a little quicker. Once the coach gets to New Mexico, instead of ending with the passengers each scattering to their respective fates, the story follows a couple characters for a surprisingly long while longer to tie up their stories, and I kind of wished everything had ended with everyone getting off the coach and going their own ways.  Maybe it would have felt a little too neat, but as it was I found myself checking how much longer the post-coach scenes were going to go.

Image result for stagecoach movie

John Wayne notwithstanding, the real star of the show is the location.  Several years ago I remarked to a friend that it is impossible to take a bad photo of the American Southwest, simply because the landscape is so stunningly beautiful.  Director John Ford apparently had the same opinion – he favored Westerns not because he was into cowboys, but because it was an excuse to shoot in places like Monument Valley.  Shot after shot captures the tiny stagecoach moving through the vast sweep of the desert, the huge mesas and rock towers and cliffs towering over them or shimmering in the distance.  It’s absolutely beautiful to look at – and when we’re reminded of the threat against our passengers, it also turns disquieting at the same time, because it’s a biiiig open desert they’re moving through all alone.  For me, though, awe at the landscape was more so the reaction, to the point that it overshadowed John Wayne at his John Wayne-iest.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Image result for destry rides again

It took me a while to figure this film out.  The opening was so over-the-top that I was watching with a literal dropped jaw; it was a slow pan down a stereotypical “Wild West” town street, panning over scores of cowboys fighting along the way, and coming to rest on the porch of an establishment literally called “The Last Chance Saloon”, where about twenty cowboys were whooping and hollering and merrily firing guns in the air. As I gaped at this, one man even rode his horse through the doors of the saloon and then back out again.

….What on earth was I getting into?  This was reminding me of some of the excesses from Blazing Saddles – only Mel Brooks was kidding with his work.  But this film….they weren’t serious, were they?

Not only did I end up less certain that they were serious, I ended up less convinced that it even mattered.

Image result for destry rides again

Said saloon is the home base for Kent (Brian Donlevy), a gambler and shady dealer and all around oogy dude; he and his sweetheart, saloon singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), are the unofficial power in the little podunk town of Bottleneck.  Mayor Hiram Slade (Samuel Hinds) is in cahoots with their schemes, so he’s no threat; and as for Sherrif Keogh, when he asks a couple of nosy questions at the start of the film, someone shoots him to shut him up, and Slade appoints “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winniger), the town drunk, as the new sherrif.

But to everyone’s surprise, Wash takes the honor seriously.  He was once the deputy to a highly-esteemed lawman by the name of Destry, and Wash swears off alcohol, wanting to bring honor to the profession.  He even sends for Destry’s son Tom (Jimmy Stewart) to serve as his own deputy.  Tom’s just as much of a respecter of law as his father and accepts the job – but to Wash’s great disappointment one thing Tom doesn’t believe in, is guns.  The rest of the town collectively scoffs and goes back to their usual hijinks – until Tom Destry starts asking some probing questions about both Sherrif Keogh, and about the running poker game Kent has going on in the saloon…

Image result for destry rides again

In a move that may have been catering to a very specific audience, Frenchy gets into a lengthy catfight with Tom Destry’s landlady on his first day in town, one which destroys most of the saloon before Destry finally breaks things up by dousing them with water.  But otherwise – in a possible return-to-form in her career – Dietrich is the same sly singer she was in Blue Angel, only a bit older; and, surprisingly, unsuccessful at winning over the man she’s got her eyes on.  The first time she tries seducing Destry, it’s clear that it’s to keep him in check – but the second time, it seems like Frenchy sort of…means it.  And the upright Destry, devoted to his job, fends her off both times.

Image result for destry rides again

It wasn’t until halfway through the film, with a small moment with a minor character, that I finally understood this film for what it was.  There’s an ongoing bit of schtick with Destry’s landlady, who proudly goes by the name Callahan – but her current husband is not the original Callahan.  He’s her second husband, a Russian guy who just looks a lot like him.  And for reasons which the film fails to explain, Mrs. Callahan is trying to hide that fact, constantly upbraiding him for not living up to her memory of the original.  The pressure drives “Callahan” to compulsively gamble, playing Frenchy in frequent poker games – which always end with her encouraging him to bet his pants.  He loses, she claims her prize and he is forced to steal pants from the other tenants in their inn, making his thefts throughout.  But all of that is just a little bit of a background throwaway gag until the moment when Destry is alone in his room and hears a noise in his closet – and throws open the door to see “Callahan” there, getting dressed in Destry’s own trousers. After a beat of shocked silence, “Callahan” simply says: “Would you believe me if I said I was waiting for a stagecoach?”

Image result for destry rides again

And that is when I got that this film was in on the joke.  Mel Brooks borrowed a lot from this film for Blazing Saddles – Madeline Kahn’s character “Lily von Schtupp” is an obvious echo, but I realized that Harvey Korman’s corrupt businessman, the fast-shooting Waco Kid, and even the befriending of a local to serve as deputy all have their ancestry right here.  Mel Brooks may not have consciously intended thus, but Brooks was poking affectionate fun at Western film tropes – so it makes sense that he was influenced by a film that was having fun with those very tropes.  Destry Rides Again’s filmmaker must have known, and intended, for his film to be a little bit ridiculous and cartoonish; it’s just that instead of pushing it all the way into farce, Destry Rides Again mixes the comedy in with a bit of seriousness to create an ultimately engaging story.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Image result for only angels have wings

Okay. One of the principles upon which I have founded this blog is that “so long as I keep in mind that my opinion is simply that, an opinion, I need not be ashamed of it”.  I was briefly discussing this with another Movies-Before-You-Die blogger, discussing this reputation that we seem to grant to Classic Films – these films have made it into a collective Canon, and its membership in the Canon can sometimes mess with people’s heads and make them think that they should therefore like a film.  But not everyone is going to like everything, after all, and there are some pieces of art that are just not to everyone’s taste.  We don’t fret if we dislike a contemporary movie, after all – we also don’t fret if we see a movie with a friend and one of us likes it and the other hates it.   People are different.  People like different things.  And that’s just fine.

So it does not concern me that even though the A.V. Club declared that Only Angels Have Wings is possibly “the greatest Hollywood movie of all time”, and The Guardian praised its “drama, intrigue, laughter, and chills”, Slant magazine calls it “a bizarre and gorgeous masterwork,” and it has a 100% Fresh rating on Rottentomatoes.com, my reaction can be summed up by a single word: “Bleah”.

Image result for only angels have wings

I was so bored by this, you guys.  We see no less than four planes crash over the course of this film, and I was still bored out of my mind.  Cary Grant in a serious role bored me, the machinations of the soap-opera plot bored me, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth in piss-poor roles bored me, I just could not get into this.

I was bugged right out of the gate with a plot bait-and-switch; things started out with Jean Arthur as the seeming lead; she plays Bonnie Lee, an adventurous but cash-poor tourist, traveling on a steamship up the South American coast, and disembarks in the town of Barraca to stretch her legs while the crew takes on a freight of bananas.  As she’s exploring, a pair of American expats try to pick her up, taking her to their local hangout for a drink; but only when they’re already there does Lee learn that they’re pilots for a local air courier service, and that they’ve taken her to the canteen on their base.  But then Cary Grant – their square-jawed boss Geoff Carter – tags one of the two to make a late-night run over the Andes, and a last-minute change in the weather causes our unlucky pilot to crash – and Lee is horrified to see Carter and the others brush off his death as no big deal.  She prepares to storm out – but Carter is just so cute that she comes back, and she ends up missing her boat and has to stay there for a week.  And with that, Lee’s character arc gets pretty much sidelined for the rest of the movie.

See the source image

Not that it’s much of an arc, though. For the rest of the film Arthur is reduced to a dithering sap, swinging between twue wuv for the taciturn Carter and repulsion at his callousness and cruelty.

As for Carter – it’s blindingly obvious his callousness is a defense shielding him from the pain of continuously losing pilots he cares about – in a manly brotherly way, of course – coupled with an old pain from having an earlier Love Of His Life slip away from him.  Lo and behold, his ex-Judy (Rita Hayworth) shows up, now married to a new pilot who’s come looking for work.  Except this new pilot MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) is trying to overcome a bad reputation he got for bailing out of a plane a couple years back, leaving his co-pilot to die in the crash – and whaddya know, his co-pilot’s brother is Carter’s best buddy, another pilot there on the base.

Image result for only angels have wings

It’s a total flippin’ soap opera, with predictable plot twists and super-thin character arcs (especially for the women), and the rave reviews I’m seeing now are doing nothing to convince me otherwise.  One of the reviews I’ve just read even admits that the plot is “paper thin”, but excuses this on the grounds that the film is “a scalpel-sharp analysis of men under pressure: bitching, blaming and refusing to back down.”  Quite frankly, I’ve had quite enough exposure to “men under pressure” in the real world, and found this stereotypical, melodramatic, and trite.

There was maybe one moment I found a little tense – where the disgraced pilot is attempting to fly cases of nitroglycerine over the Andes but has had to turn back, and has to jettison them out a trap door in main cabin by hand while still piloting the plane.  But all the elements in that were so over-the-top – the fact that he was trying to be in two places at once, the fact that he was dodging mountain peaks in the Andes, the fact that he was working with boxes of nitroglycerine – that I felt I was being manipulated, and half expected him to also have an almost-fell moment where he slips out the trap door and dangles by a rope or something.  I mean, why not, since we’ve already got the guy juggling nitro singlehandedly in the mountains while flying one-handed and dodging condors?

Bleah.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Image result for mr. smith goes to washington

I really wonder what it would have been like to see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at a different time.

Jimmy Stewart is Jefferson Smith, a starry-eyed political naïf appointed to replace his state’s recently-deceased Senator.  Smith wasn’t the first choice – the people had their own preferred candidate, but Jim Taylor, a local business tycoon with deep political influence, also had his own choice. Caught in the middle, Governor Herbert Hooper (Guy Kibbee) agonizes over the choice until his young sons suggest Smith as an option; he’s the leader and organizer of their boys’ club.  Hooper, desperate to be done with the choice, nominates Smith – the public seems to like him, and Hooper assures Taylor that Smith’s inexperience will make him easy to manipulate.  Smith is summarily shipped to Washington, where an office and secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) await.  Senior senator Joe Paine (Claude Rains), a longtime family friend of the Smiths, offers to shepherd Smith through his stint in the Senate – but Paine is secretly in league with Taylor, and is really hoping to distract Smith from doing much.

See the source image

When the eager Smith begs Paine to let him do some real legislative work, Paine suggests he draw up a simple bill for something and try to pass it.  Something small, like getting funding for an infrastructure project back in their state.  Turns out Smith has had several ideas about starting a boys’ camp back home – one open to all boys throughout the country, with scholarships to help fund the less-wealthy campers, designed to teach them about civic duty and good citizenship along with the usual hiking and canoeing and outdoorsy fun.  He pulls an all-nighter with Saunders to draft the bill, but just before he presents it, Paine hears that the proposed camp is located right where he and Taylor have been getting ready to build a dam – after having secretly bought up all the surrounding land so the Eminent Domain payments make them both rich.  In a desperate bid to save the dam, Taylor orders Paine to frame Smith for corruption instead – interrupting Smith’s proposal for the camp to claim that Smith had secretly bought the land for the campsite.  The ethics committee investigates Smith’s case and rules against him – but Smith seizes the Senate floor in a filibuster in a desperate attempt to plead his case, and in the hope that decency will win the day.

Stories about a civic idealist learning about the corruption within government are almost a genre all their own by now, usually ending either with their simple common-sense winning out, or with their ambition leading them to betray their ideals (then getting punished for it).  I want to say that they’re almost a uniquely American story, but I’m sure that there are examples of this story in every country with a representative government; power does corrupt, after all.  And there have been stories riffing on this theme for a long time, almost as long as this nation has been alive.

Image result for mr. smith goes to washington

But one big thing that has changed in the years since Mr. Smith is how the public perceives such stories; which, I’d argue, is because of how the public perceives the government itself.  In the 1930s – and the years before and just after – the public shared a similar starry-eyed view of government.  Sure, there were bad apples and corrupt politicians here and there, but many believed those were the exceptions.  The government as a whole was still noble, most people still believed in ideals like decency and fair play and good citizenship, and people who betrayed those ideals would surely get their comeuppance in the end.  Stories about corruption also tended to stay local, as well – people in Topeka never knew about the party political machine in Chicago, for instance.

Then came Watergate – an incidence of corruption which also played out on the national stage.  Now everyone was forced to see that sometimes the bad apples aren’t just local, and sometimes the rot spreads all the way to the top, affecting everyone.  Since then, we’ve still had stories about idealists facing corrupt politicians, but now it’s the idealist who is the exception to the rule.  Instead of being horrified to hear about one senator framing another for graft in order to save his own bill, many of us today might just shrug and say “yeah, it figures.”  Instead of idealizing the government like Smith does (early in the film, he wanders through Washington DC in an enchanted daze visiting all the monuments while Paine waits impatiently to give him his initial briefing), we just wait for their inevitable loss of innocence, and then wait to see how they’re going to recover.

Image result for mr. smith goes to washington

I realize I’m not talking about the film itself all that much.  This is not due to a lack on the film’s part, however; Stewart is his usual charming self, and Jean Arthur is really engaging as the cynical Saunders who is eventually won over by Smith’s faith. (Although I did wish she ended up with more of a titled role in his administration than “secretary”; that could have been a wish before its time, though.)  Stewart was also pretty obsessive about doing this film right – he would wake up at 5 a.m. and drive himself to the set each day, not even wanting to risk a driver getting into a car crash with him and requiring he drop out.  And while filming the filibuster scene, Stewart apparently gargled with an awful-sounding concoction laced with mercury that temporarily inflamed his vocal cords, so that he would sound suitably hoarse.

But that was all overshadowed by my watching this film in a post-Watergate timeline, so Smith’s idealism (and director Frank Capra’s) look like naivete instead of patriotism. It still presents political corruption as a temporary blip that Smith’s good nature defeats, instead of an ever-present danger that all of us, consciously or unconsciously, were pretending didn’t exist.  Some people still believe it’s an anomaly, or worse, they believe that it’s only a recent phenomenon – and they point to films like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington as their “proof”.

Image result for mr. smith goes to washington

As I write this, the country is undergoing another lengthy inquiry into another potential instance of national political corruption.  At the same time, another group of first-time politicians is preparing to take office, to be confronted first-hand with the political machine on a national scale (and one of the better-known such idealists is a young woman, the youngest ever elected to Congress, from here in New York City).  My hope for them is that they are able to chart a different course than Jefferson Smith – that instead of being overawed by the thought that “wow, I’m in Washington now” that they are able to remember the dangers and pitfalls that await them, avoid the temptations of power, and actually change the narrative on this genre, maybe for the first time ever.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Image result for the lady vanishes

Fittingly – for a movie about a mystery on board a train – the journey for this film was just as fun as the destination.

Socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is wrapping up a bachelorette-party trip across Europe with her friends, before heading back to London to marry a dude who sounds incredibly boring. An avalanche further down the track traps her in a little Eastern-European inn for the night, where she makes nodding acquaintanceship with some of her upcoming fellow passengers – smugly handsome musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a “vacationing couple” who actually aren’t married, a pair of cricket-mad businessmen desperate to get home in time for a match, and kind Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who tells Iris she’s a governess on her way home.  When Iris gets a nasty bump on the head at the train station the next day, it is Miss Froy who helps her, making sure Iris is safely on board the train and tending to her with bandages.

Image result for the lady vanishes

The grateful Iris shares a pot of tea with her in the train’s café car before taking a short nap – but when Iris wakes up, Miss Froy is not there, and everyone swears to her that there never was a Miss Froy.  Iris got on the train alone, they tell her, and she had tea alone and Miss Froy never existed.  Instead of accepting their word, Iris fears that something happened to Miss Froy and sets out to discover the truth.

Now, Hitchcock could very easily have gone with a straightforward plot of “Miss Froy: real or imagined?” and made Iris’ efforts to find the truth the whole movie.  But so much evidence stacks up so quickly to prove that Something Fishy’s Going On that by the middle of the film, we’re totally on board with the belief that not only is Miss Froy real, but that there’s somehow a train-wide conspiracy to convince Iris she’s not.  But right when we’re patting ourselves on the back for figuring that out, Hitchcock introduces a new question “Okay, if there is a conspiracy, who is actually in on it?”

Image result for the lady vanishes

That proves to be a much more complex question; we learn later on that some of the people who’d sworn to Iris that they never saw Miss Froy actually did see her, but just lied to Iris because they wanted to calm her down or they didn’t want to get involved.  Or they were just confused.  Or they weren’t sure and thought their indecision wouldn’t help so they said no.  Or they had been part of the conspiracy but changed their minds later.

And while Iris – with the help of Gilbert, who was an early Believer In Froy – are getting to the bottom of Who Knew What, Hitchcock raises a third question – “Wait, who is Miss Froy, and what did she do that’s leading to a conspiracy about her anyway?”

Image result for the lady vanishes

Remarkably, despite all these twists, all these loose ends are tied up by the end (I did think the very end was a little far-fetched, but not unbelievably so).  The characters also all stay consistent and believable throughout – Iris and Gilbert’s sparking a romance during the film is a little eye-rolly, but they’ve got a nearly screwball-comedy chemistry throughout, and upon reflection, it makes more sense for thrill-seeker Iris to be interested in Gilbert – someone she’s straight-up solved a mystery with – than it does for her to enter a marriage of convenience.

Image result for the lady vanishes

In fact, two of the supporting characters were so strongly drawn that they broke out of the film and made a whole career for themselves.  The pair of cricket fans, called “Charters and Caldicott” in the script, were so beloved by fans that other filmmakers threw them into their own projects, writing in cameo scenes for the pair.  They turn up in the thriller Night Train to Munich, a British film about scientists escaping from Nazis; they’re in wartime propaganda films like Millions Like Us and The Next Of Kin; and they even starred in the film adaptation of the British radio comedy Crook’s Tour, where they play a pair of foppish travelers who are mistaken for spies.   It’s kind of like how Bronson Pinchot spun his quirky cameo in Beverly Hills Cop into a role on the sitcom Perfect Strangers.  Happily, too, the same pair of actors – Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford – played the pair throughout most of their ten-year wave.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Olympia (1938)

Image result for olympia leni riefenstahl american

So, here’s the thing.  I’m not really a sports person.  Never have been, never will be.  I respect athletes, mind, it’s just that watching them do their job is not something I would ever really do.  So that was a big strike I had in mind against Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia – on top of the already-existing and inescapable fact that Olympia was about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and so I was bound to see lots of shots of swastikas and people Heiling Hitler, something I’ve really had quite enough of as of late, thanks very much.  So I was surprised to discover that I….kind of liked this.

Part of what seduced me may have been through a simple quirk of fate.  The full four-hour Olympia is split into two parts at most screenings and on most streaming services – and for reasons I cannot ascertain, the print of the first part I watched did not have subtitles. I even tried turning on the closed-captioning, but all they had for the frequent sportscaster commentary was the phrase “man speaking German” in parentheses.  So I switched it right back off and just studied the visuals; maybe that was all I needed.  And it was – Riefenstahl was an amazingly innovative visual artist, including such a broad range of detail that I was getting a narrative simply out of what I was seeing.

Mind you, Riefenstahl’s techniques aren’t anything you haven’t seen in your average Sunday night football or 21st-Century Olympics broadcast – closeups of the athletes preparing for action, shots of the screaming crowd, lots of different angles on the action from all perspectives, slow-motion plays for the really killer stuff.  But that’s exactly it – Riefenstahl was the one who came up with all that.  A year ago I was in Berlin, and visited their Deutsche Kinemathek museum for film and television; there’s a whole room devoted just to this one movie, with a scale model of the Berlin Olympic Stadium showing you with pinpoint lights precisely where Riefenstahl had the camera set up for specific shots; from what I can recall, there were cameras all over the dang place, from the ones in the house right next to the Yutz In Charge to the ones down on the oval, up in the rafters, down in a dugout-y thing….they were everywhere.

Image result for olympia leni riefenstahl american

But having a lot of cameras isn’t all there is to it.  Riefenstahl was also capturing interesting things with those cameras – there were lots of shots of different nations’ cheering sections, cheering on athletes from all over the world.  And she matched the athlete to their nation’s fans – when a Japanese pole vaulter had a particularly good run, we got a shot of a big cluster of Japanese fans all cheering and waving.  A tight race between an Italian and a French runner saw both of their fans as well.   There was a whole drama involving an American shotput guy and some dudes in straw hats in the audience; the shotput guy kept falling short before finally making a good throw, and the dudes in the straw hats kept getting more and more despondent with each of his misses before Riefenstahl showed them losing their minds at his success.

Other bits seemed strangely intimate.  For one late-night pole-vaulting sequence, it was too dark to show the surrounding crowds; in response, it feels like Riefenstahl embraced that, turning down the sound on the crowd completely so that all you hear is each athlete’s running footsteps in the dirt and their pants of breath.  And instead of the crowds watching them, she would cut to closeups of the other athletes watching them instead, peering at their rivals with rapt attention.  In those moments, the politics of the Berlin Olympiad are stripped away – it feels more like a late-night casual pick-up match between a couple of neighboring colleges or something.

Image result for olympia leni riefenstahl american

This was the Olympics where American runner Jesse Owens showed up Hitler’s race prejudice but good, so I was curious to see how his races were treated.  And – I’m happy to say that Riefenstahl shows him in a favorable light.  I’m even happier to report, however, that he was not the only non-German athlete that Riefenstahl made look good.  Every athlete who had a notable achievement – regardless what country they were from – gets celebrated by this film, with lots of beauty shots of their performance, closeups of their fans, and a shot of their medal ceremony.  There are even two instances when an American gold medalist’s face is superimposed over a shot of the fluttering Stars and Stripes, as “The Star Spangled Banner” echoes through the Olympic Stadium.  But the same happens with the Japanese athletes listening to the “Kimiyago” or the French athletes with the tricoleur and “La Marsellaise”.

There’s even some possibly-unintentional comedy, in a sequence covering an equestrian event; about eight riders are following a complicated cross-country track, with lots of hurdles and obstacles; one such hurdle was set up right before a stream, such that horse and rider got a splashdown on landing.  Easily half the riders got thrown off into the stream, or their horses would want to stop and shake off a bit.  Even funnier was a sequence at another obstacle with two hurdles on either side of a ditch; horses had to jump the first hurdle, land on a steep slope on the other side, climb down to the bottom and then back up and over the second hurdle.  One rider’s horse took one look at that setup and stopped dead, refusing to jump.  Three times the rider tried to circle it back for another attempt, but each time the horse said “nope” and stopped short.  The commentator drily noted that the rider was eliminated from the match as a result, but honestly, I’m with the horse.

Image result for olympia leni riefenstahl

For the second half of the film, Riefenstahl isn’t even showcasing the competitive angle all that much.  The second half is set up as more of a celebration of the universality and commonality of sport, and the beauty of the athletes.   For the competitive sailing races, there’s not much commentary on the races themselves; instead, there are beautiful shots of a fleet of boats, sails all unfurled, darting through the sea on a gorgeous day.  A sequence on diving towards the end doesn’t just abandon the commentary towards the end, it also abandons any effort to distinguish one diver from another – all we see is a series of beautiful men soaring gracefully through the air in perfectly precise arcs, or curling themselves up gracefully into flips and spins, then splashing effortlessly into water.  Once or twice, Riefenstahl even reverses the film, tracing the diver’s flight backwards just to show you how it looks that way.  Other times she even shows you the divers’ path from underwater.

See the source image

Riefenstahl’s association with the Third Reich unquestionably makes her a controversial figure, and during the 1930s she reported having a favorable opinion of Adolf Hitler.  And yet I can’t shake the notion that someone who really bought into the Nazi party line wouldn’t have treated other country’s athletes as sensitively and favorably as she did with this film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Image result for wuthering heights 1939 film

It’s strange – when it comes to film adaptations of books, I usually turn up my nose at the idea of using the film as a “cheat” to help you follow the book.  However, this Wuthering Heights adaptation is now the second time I’ve done precisely that (the first was 2012’s Cloud Atlas, which has sadly not made it onto the list).

Like most, I had the book as assigned reading in high school, so I had vague recollections of the plot; dude named Heathcliff, northern English setting, doomed love story, something like that. However, I had great gaps in my memory (whether Emily Bronte’s opaque writing style is at fault, or whether it’s due to my being three decades out of high school, is a judgement call I leave to the reader), and watching this film helped reinforce the story for me: as a boy, the orphan Healthcliff is swept up off the Liverpool streets and adopted by widower Yorkshireman Mr. Earnshaw, who brings him home to his farm on the moors to live with him and his son Hindley and daughter Catherine.

Image result for wuthering heights 1939 film

Heathcliff and Catherine bond deeply, but Hindley looks down on the orphan, and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley demotes Heathcliff from the status of “adopted brother” to “farmhand”, sending him off to sleep in the stable.  Catherine also starts to look down on Heathcliff a little as well, despite herself – she has girlish dreams of marrying wealthy and becoming a genteel lady-of-the-manor, something Heathcliff can’t provide for her. A misunderstanding drives Heathcliff away to seek his fortune and come back to her, but by the time he returns, Catherine has already married the wealthy Edgar Linton and is living the high life.  So Heathcliff instead marries Edgar’s sister and buys the Earnshaw family home instead, thus forcing himself into Catherine’s orbit, to punish her for shunning him.

Image result for wuthering heights 1939 film

Now, I’ve spoken before about what a tricky tightrope adapting books to film can be.  It’s nearly impossible to make a 100% faithful adaptation of book-to-film, simply because books and films are two completely different art forms.  One of the big things filmmakers have to wrestle with is time – some bits of books get left out of adaptations simply because the filmmakers don’t want to make a five-hour epic saga.  So this film, like most adaptations, completely omits the half of the book which deals with Heathcliff and Catherine’s children and their relationships, keeping strictly to the story of Heathcliff and Catherine and their doomed affair.  It also greatly simplifies the framing narrative – the whole story in the novel is an “as-told-to” kind of thing, with our narrator hearing the story from Heathcliff’s housemaid over the course of several visits to Wuthering Heights.  But the novel also gets bogged down with the narrator getting sick and going on trips and having his own issues to deal with, all of which ultimately distracted 16-year-old me from following the novel that well.  Here, the narrator’s bit is simply to get snowed in at Wuthering Heights and hear the whole story in one fell swoop, which made the actual story much clearer.

Image result for wuthering heights 1939 film

However – some literary critics have pointed out that the tone of the film greatly changes one element of that story. Here, the implication seems to be that fate and bad luck is the biggest wedge between Heathcliff and Catherine; they love each other, but Catherine is too seduced by riches and doesn’t want to live in poverty with Heathcliff, while Heathcliff is a heel for wanting to punish her instead of keeping his distance and letting her be.  Whereas the book implies that it’s much more of a mutual antagonism – Catherine doesn’t marry Edgar Linton because she thinks “oh, Heathcliff ran off, he’s not an option any  more,” it’s more like “he ran off, but he’ll come back one day and I’ll be married already, that’ll teach him”.  The film reforms both characters’ image a lot, turning a story about mutual cruelty into a story about thwarted passion; making it a bit more palatable for modern audiences, perhaps.

It also tacks on a movie-romantic final sequence, wholly invented for the film, depicting a reunion between the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff.  This sequence was actually tacked on by producer Samuel Goldwyn; Goldwyn had suggested it to director William Wyler, who hated the idea.  But Goldwyn insisted on adding it in, and even had to call in doubles for stars Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, both of whom had since moved on to other projects.

Image result for wuthering heights 1939 film

Still, the changes and tweaks seem to have paid off; Wuthering Heights was soundly praised by critics, and scoring eight Oscar nominations that year.  The 1939 Oscars offered some unusually stiff competition, however, with juggernaut films Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz also scoring nominations. Ultimately, its one win was for Cinematography, and even then that may have only been because there were two cinematography categories that year, one for color films and one for black and white films.  I have to say, though, that frequently I was struck by the shots cinematographer Gregg Toland was setting up on the screen; if someone like me is noticing how well things are composed, that’s saying something.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Image result for angels with dirty faces

I think I’m starting to get won over by Jimmy Cagney.

My only exposure to Jimmy Cagney prior to this was through seeing some random cilps from Yankee Doodle Dandy somewhere, where he sang in a sort of Rex Harrison singspiel spoken-word thing that I always associated with “guy who can’t sing but they cast him in a musical anyway” and I turned up my nose.  But then after seeing him first as an actor in Public Enemy, then as a dancer in Footlight Parade, and now in this, I’m starting to think I judged the fellow a little prematurely.

This role is a return to Jimmy Cagney as tough guy, Rocky Sullivan by name, whose fate is permanently set as a boy when he and his buddy Jerry try to rob a box car in a train yard. The cops chase them both, but Jerry outruns Rocky and makes his getaway. Rocky falls into the hands of the cops, and then a reform school, and from there into a fifteen-year stretch of crimes both big and small, interspersed with hops in and out of jail.

Image result for angels with dirty faces

After one three-year stint in the slammer he comes back to the old neighborhood, in search of the corrupt lawyer who bribed him to plead guilty (Humphrey Bogart).  Rocky is seeking his revenge, but while he’s back in town he looks up his old buddy Jerry (Pat O’Brien), finding that their youthful crime scared Jerry straight, and he’s now a priest at the church in their old street.  Jerry has been making the kids in his parish his special crusade, hoping to steer them away from the petty crime and gang rivalries that steered his old buddy wrong; when he realizes that some of his young charges idolize Rocky, he enlists Rocky’s help in steering them straight.  Rocky is all too happy to help, out of affection for his old friend. But the criminal world catches up to Rocky again, interfering with Rocky’s plans; and even worse, the kids in Rocky’s fan club seem impressed instead of scared straight.  Jerry is forced to ask Rocky for one final sacrifice for their sake.

Image result for angels with dirty faces

The kids in Rocky’s “fan club” were an interesting group; six teenage boys who often appeared together as “The Dead End Kids”.  From what I’ve read, it sounds like they were “The Brat Pack” of the 1930s – a group of young actors who were all independently cast in the same play which granted them collective fame, leading to further work for the group entire.  This film was actually first proposed as a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, in fact, instead of being a Jimmy Cagney feature; at this time, Cagney was trying to avoid “tough guy” roles.  But the role of Rocky Sullivan was nuanced enough that Cagney was intrigued and took the part.  It’s definitely a performance with more variety than he had in Public Enemy – there’s the bluster and cockiness of the street tough, but also quieter moments that flesh out the character.  One moment that especially caught my eye came early on, when Rocky has first returned to find Jerry in the church, directing a rehearsal of the boys’ choir; as he waits quietly out of sight, listening to the boys singing a Latin hymn, Rocky gets a wistful look and starts singing along, quietly, despite himself.

Cagney’s last scene is also beautifully done – I can’t discuss it in detail without spoiling the film, so suffice it to say that the specific motivation for Rocky’s last actions in the film is a matter of some debate, and Cagney intended it to be that way.  Even today – a few days after seeing the film – I still have questions, and it’s thanks to Cagney’s exemplary performance.  He was of course nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, and while he didn’t win, critics regarded it as one of his finest works.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Image result for the adventures of robin hood 1938

By now there is no need for me to acquaint the reader with the plot of this film – this is one of a long, long line of adaptations of the Robin Hood tales, which have seen adaptations both gritty and fanciful, period and contemporary; it has been given serious treatment by Kevin Reynolds and Ridley Scott, spoof treatment by Mel Brooks and Terry Gilliam, an animated treatment by Mel Blanc and Disney, and even a burlesque treatment on the British pantomime circuit.  And that’s not even getting into the times that TV shows like Star Trek: Next Generation or Doctor Who have done a “Robin Hood episode”.  It’s Robin Hood.  We all know the drill, and I would bet that a number of you are still giggling over the memory of Worf growling “Sir, I am not a Merry Man!” after I mentioned that Star Trek episode.

Image result for the adventures of robin hood 1938

….Which brings me to my biggest complaint about this film, actually.  I know that Robin Hood’s band goes by the name “Merry Men”, but ultimately everyone was so merry in this film it got on my damn nerves.  Errol Flynn – who will be our Sir Robin of Locksley for this evening – seems to have a perpetual smirk on his face no matter how dire the circumstances. Even in an early scene when he’s in Prince John’s castle, he notices the guards are locking him in and preparing to jump him, but doesn’t look scared or troubled at all; instead, it looks more like he’s started working on an unusually tricky crossword puzzle.  He recruits Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) through lively sparring matches, which both end with everyone throwing back their heads for a hearty laugh before a chummy handshake and a trip to a tavern for some ale.  Ambushing a tax collectors’ haul is cause enough for a huge banquet scene complete with Morris dancers, lute players, roast pigs on spits and crowds of people clanking tankards – basically anything you’ve seen at a suburban Renaissance Faire.

Image result for the adventures of robin hood

And that hearty jollity killed a lot of the dramatic tension for me.  Not that I need things to be historically accurate or grim all the time – the story of Robin Hood is essentially a fairy tale, and sometimes things get fanciful in fairy tales.  But at least you should feel like there are some things at stake, and that your hero is up against an evenly-matched enemy.  In this version, however, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a milquetoast who chickens out of any potential matchup with Robin, and the real baddy, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), is confined to simply looking menacing as he sits beside Prince John for most of the film.  Anytime we see anyone getting into any real danger, they get out of it within about five minutes, so when things get a wee bit dicey for Maid Marian (Olivia de Haviland) towards the end, we just shrug, thinking that we already know that Robin’s going to save her, so eh.  This isn’t a story, so much as it’s an excuse to watch Robin Hood be awesome.

But that brings me to the thing I thought this film did do well.

Image result for the adventures of robin hood

The last time we saw Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn do a stage fight, they were done in less than five minutes and it was a little dull.  But this was more like it.  I got a bit of a crash course in stage combat in college, thanks to a friend who was a genius at combat choreography and performance (I’ll be referencing him in a couple later reviews, since he had some seriously intense opinions about the combat in both Gladiator and Princess Bride).  My friend’s biggest criteria for a fight scene was always whether it felt like the moves in the fight flowed organically from what was happening.  People who just bashed swords at each other didn’t impress him; there has to be a reason why you’re bashing swords at each other, he pointed out, be it “I’m seeking revenge against my father’s murderer” to “I’m sizing this guy’s fight skills up” to “I’m trying to get the hell out of this castle”.  Every fight had to have a story to it, he said.  And in this film, the story of each fight was absolutely clear.  It may have been telegraphed who was going to win each time, but the story of the fight itself was clear.

My friend also liked it when fight scenes worked in other features of the room – if you’re trying to get away from an attacker, anything that will help you do that, you’re gonna use.  So during that early scene when Robin is ambushed by Prince John’s men, and he flips backward in his chair, does a sommersault under it and then picks up the chair to use as a shield, I was there for it.  In a later fight, someone throws an entire candelabra at Robin Hood to trap him under it – but Robin grabs one of the candles and throws it back at his attacker, distracting him long enough to get back on his own feet.  And it’s not just Robin – other characters’ fight moves are choregraphed well, like a little guy who spends an entire fight huddled up in the rafters with a club so he can yank off people’s helmets and bonk them on the noggin.  People in the film are fighting like they’d really be fighting, and in and of itself that was gripping.